The dawn of modernity was a predominantly European phenomenon. Since the middle of the 19th century industrialization and urbanization changed all areas of life. Electrification and the new means of mass transportation accelerated this process since the turn of the century and influenced aesthetic experiences. The rejection of historicism and the search for new forms of expression and living became the starting point for a multitude of social and artistic tendencies. They ranged from the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Nouveau, the garden city movement, the establishment of the German Werkbund to the institutionalization of so-called New Building with the founding of the Bauhaus in Weimar. and later in Dessau. Immediately before and after the First World War, Germany was a testing ground for architectural modernism, driven by the concern that the change in living conditions had to find its equivalent in the design of modern buildings. Housing freed from traditional models, social housing and new forms of non-profit housing estates and church buildings as well as technical and commercial buildings were central themes in the rapidly growing cities.
In the late 19th century the transition to modern architecture took place for various reasons. One of the most important issues of architecture in the 19th and early 20th centuries was the search for an appropriate and generally valid architectural style. It was not until the end of the 19th century that a change in living conditions in the cities slowly began to take hold. Affordable modern dwellings with light and air were to replace the old tenement blocks with their numerous dark backyards.
The innovative use of materials such as glass, iron, zinc, steel and concrete created completely new possibilities for architects. Particularly on the occasion of the World Expositions, the European Countries were urged to showcase their achievements. Huge exhibition halls made of steel and glass were therefore erected in the host cities for the first time for this purpose. Experience with these materials had been gained since industrialization in the middle of the 19th century, when factory halls, railway stations and greenhouses became new construction tasks and the changed technical possibilities allowed wide-span constructions with curtain walls. At the end of the 19th century, one sensed a disillusionment with the architecture of historicism, whose academic scholarship had done nothing to solve the pressing social problems. The rejection of traditional forms of architecture thus became the starting point in the search for a new style that would better respond to the changed lifestyle and needs of a new era. The construction of buildings made of iron, glass and concrete already indicated a consistent reduction of design to its functional components.
The impetus for the inner-city high-rise as a radically new form of construction came mainly from Chicago after the great fire of 1871. European architects subsequently took up the challenge of the new building type. From England, on the other hand, came the reform approach of William Morris, who regarded craftsmanship and artistic work as the basis of a fulfilled life. Art Nouveau architecture, reform architecture and the garden city movement – based on Hermann Muthesius – drew significant impulses from this.
Already at the time of its emergence, Art Nouveau was understood as modernist architecture in contrast to the then prevailing historicism. The attempt to bring art and everyday life into harmony and its comprehensive will to reform distinguish Art Nouveau from a purely external renewal of architecture. With its various manifestations, Art Nouveau ranges from a floral variant, which transferred the moving line into stone, metal and wood and which had its main focus between 1898 and 1904 in France, Germany and Belgium, to Modernismo in Catalonia and the architecture of Viennese Modernism. In theory, Art Nouveau appears as an attempt to integrate art into the life of society as a whole, but in practice it soon took on predominantly bourgeois characteristics. The building tasks of the constantly growing cities made Art Nouveau the common facade design, where the creative power of architects and craftsmen could be expressed.
Reform architecture was usually linked to social reform efforts. Cooperatives, factories, building and savings associations developed extensive housing estates. The principles of the garden city movement were applied and constantly refined. Facade decoration disappeared more and more. Practicality without false pathos, simplicity and adequacy of means were the cornerstones of this movement. In Munich, the Borstei is worth mentioning in this context, in Dresden the Gartenstadt Hellerau, in Essen the Margarethenhöhe housing estate. After the First World War in the wake of an increasing housing shortage, urban planners and architects took up the ideas of reform architecture and developed them further in the formal language of the 1920s.
Urban planning and housing estate construction
The First World War and its aftermath required a rethink in urban planning and architecture. The economic restrictions in housing construction and the change of the property developer from a private builder to a non-profit construction company or municipality had a major impact on design. Large housing estates had to be built in the shortest possible time to counteract the housing shortage. Long terraced houses and large residential courtyards replaced the apartement buildings of the pre-war period. The decorative façade as a means of design was replaced by a unified, mostly understated exterior design, which often characterized entire city quarters. Artistic expression was limited to individual details, to fountains and sculptures in the courtyards, to entrance areas, stair railings, front doors and door handles, grilles and water collectors, to the colorfulness of the facades and their rhythmic structuring through window and door openings.
In the first three decades of the 20th century, different architectural styles quickly followed one another, interlocked, influenced one another and remained topical for longer or shorter periods, depending on region and circumstances. Expressionism survived the First World War. Before the war it existed primarily in the visions of the so-called Glaeserne Kette, in the designs and sketches of Bruno Taut, Wenzel Hablik and Hans Poelzig. After the First World War, the visions became a built reality: the Chilehaus in Hamburg, the church buildings by Dominikus Böhm, Ernst and Günther Paul and Hans Voigt, the Grassimuseum in Leipzig, as well as a whole series of commercial buildings and housing estates.
Since Art Nouveau, ornament has not been accorded such importance. Characteristic for the architecture of Expressionism is a tendency towards the Gesamtkunstwerk. Brick and partly concrete were popular building materials. In contrast to the New Objectivity or the Neues Bauen, Expressionist architecture is characterized by round and curved on the one hand, and jagged, almost bizarre-looking forms on the other hand, which in their elevation were deliberately intended to evoke associations with the Gothic.
The Bauhaus, especially in its Weimar phase, absorbed many elements of Expressionism: Pragmatism, expressive simplification and a sense of ethical obligation to society were features that were in keeping with the school´s methodological programme. In the Netherlands, the Expressionism of the Amsterdam School influenced architecture until well into the twenties.
In a short time, Art Deco developed from a French to an international fashion in design, interior decoration and architecture. Its name is derived from the Parisian exhibition Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes in 1925. Picking up on influences from Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism, it is characterized in German architecture by ornamental complexity, acute angles and figurative decoration, all in all by varied but mostly geometrically designed elements.In high-rise architecture in the USA, Art Deco continued to develop with polychromy and ornamentation and reached a new peak.
The 1922 Gewerbeschau in Munich was groundbreaking for the arts and crafts in Germany. Richard Riemerschmid was responsible for the artistic design. The planning, which was by all means combined with a taste-forming aspiration, lay with the Werkbund.
In German architecture in particular, Art Deco – referred to by contemporaries as Expressionist Rococo – cannot always be clearly distinguished from Expressionism. This again shows that there was no generally valid aesthetic ideal at that time. Where Art Deco was allowed to be stricter and New Objectivity more elaborate, where the decorative style became expressive and Expressionism more objective, stylistic terms reached their limits.
Bauhaus and Neues Bauen (New Building)
Walter Gropius founded the architectural program of New Objectivity in 1911 with the construction of the Fagus Factory in Alfeld. Later it was called classical modernism or, since the exhibition of Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Phillip Johnson in 1932 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, International Style.
Modernism´s striving for abstraction ultimately led to a reduction to the geometric body. The ornament became increasingly superfluous, the building was reduced to its functional form. Industrially manufactured components became the norm. Large areas of glass, the flat roof, white walls with few coloured details, architecture based on the model of an ocean liner or an engine, long bands of windows in contrast to white plaster surfaces characterized this new way of building. Sharply cut openings, generous glazing and rationalised floor plans dissolved into flowing spatial continuums were further features. With the so-called Neues Bauen, the possibilities for realization also expanded; in addition to new residential models, roofs, windows, doors, furniture, fittings and kitchens were developed for industrial production. The solution of the housing question as one of the most important causes of social hardship was one of the most urgent problems to be solved after 1918 in the Weimar Republic. It was not until 1924 that the economic situation in Germany consolidated and a housing estate construction programme, unique in Europe, began, under which tens of thousands of apartments could be built.
Neues Bauen may be a synonym for modernism, but it was far from being as widespread as it might appear, mainly due to the attention it attracted in literature and the media since the post-war years. The majority of architecture in Germany since the interwar years followed a hybrid design approach that took local building traditions into account while not losing sight of modernist guidelines. Numerous high-quality buildings and housing estates were created, for which competitions were held in advance, in the course of which it was carefully considered and set out in writing which form of design and construction seemed appropriate in a particular urban planning situation and regional environment. The new buildings often triggered a considerable contemporary echo among the population and the press. High-rise debates were held, the pros and cons passionately discussed. Almost every new building was given a nickname among the population, a sign of the strong identification with the building in public space.
Modernism and National Socialism
With the seizure of power by Adolf Hitler and the dictatorship of National Socialism, a radical change of direction took place. The architects of the 1920s often initially refused to acknowledge that the conditions for designing architecture had changed so rapidly. In the early years there was still a certain amount of freedom, especially in the cultural sphere, but the hopes of many artists and architects for recognition of modernism as a so-called German or Nordic accomplishment were illusory. Modernism – whether in architecture or in other fields – was only applied where it was useful to the regime, namely in industrial and armament construction, rationalization or propaganda. The representatives of the Bauhaus were dismissed and subsequently no longer received public contracts. Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe were still permitted to design sections of the exhibition Deutsches Volk – Deutsche Arbeit in 1934. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was commissioned in 1935 to plan the German pavilion at the World Exhibition in Brussels. Many well-known architects, graphic artists and designers of the former Weimar Republic came to terms with the National Socialist system, with industrial and engineering buildings in particular remaining a domain of modernism in the service of rearmament and war. During the years of the National Socialist dictatorship, the individual fates of architects and artists ranged from complicity and collaboration to adaptation and arrangement, from the division between public and private activity to exile. All architects and artists of Jewish faith, non-conformist political views or undesirable sexual orientation had to emigrate or were persecuted and murdered.